Saturday, 28 May 2016

The Venice Biennale is a Machine of Desire - Architecture 2016 - Reporting from the Front

Playing in Transolar Light Beams at Architecture Biennale - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) Alejandro Aravena, the Director of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, seems to be practically perfect: intelligent, creative, courageous, compassionate, articulate in several languages and easy on the eyes. He won this year's Pritzker Architecture Prize, the Nobel Prize of architecture. The 48-year-old Chilean architect is here in Venice with his wife and kids, so in addition to curating the most prestigious architecture event in the world, he is also a family man.

I was chatting with a couple of female architects, who agreed that Aravena seemed to be a fine male specimen. One said, "There's got to be something wrong with him." I winked. "I'm sure he's human, but he is proof that if he can do it, they can all do it."

Paolo Baratta & Alejandro Aravena before Architecture Biennale Press Conference
Having a common theme for the Architecture Biennale and a Director who behaves like a Curator is an idea whose time has come. The title of this year's Biennale is REPORTING FROM THE FRONT. Aravena said that it's difficult to produce a quality-built environment. As soon as you step one millimeter beyond doing business as usual, you encounter a lot of resistance from the different forces at play, whether it be the situation itself, or greed, or the laziness of bureaucracy. It's like a battle, and this Biennale addresses the tools we can use to find solutions to the urgent problems facing the built environment today.

At the press conference on Thursday, Paolo Baratta, President of La Biennale, said that together we have taken a trip to bring architecture back to society. The main concern was the increasing divide between civilized society and architecture. This exhibition is dedicated to the discovery that architecture is a tool in the hands of all of us, and not just a tool in the hands of architects living on a holy mountain somewhere in the world at an unreachable height.

Architecture is the art by which we build our world. It is a tool like a Constitution is the tool to build our society, to organize our will and our destiny. Architecture is a tool to organize our common space.

Baratta said with this Architecture Biennale, we have taken a step forward in confirming the Biennale as a machine of desire that we want her to be. Rediscovering the desire for Art, as well as for Architecture, is the aim. The Biennale is not here to give recipes. It is here to provoke questions, to provoke demand, and to induce desire. The curator has to speak to our imagination, passion and mind, and the mind has to digest and develop consciousness about the problems. This seems to be a Biennale that speaks the language of urgency and hope, to acknowledge that we do possess tools to change the situation, and do not have to be prisoners of an imposed business-as-usual ideology. We have tools of giving hope to those that need it. 

Alejandro Aravena - Photo: Cat Bauer
Alejandro Aravena said that he said what he had to say out there, in the exhibition, and tried to do it in the simplest, clearest way without losing depth. More than the quantity of visitors, he is interested in the quality of the visit. He hopes that visitors gather knowledge while they travel through the exhibition.

As curator, he asked each participant in REPORTING FROM THE FRONT, "What is your battle?" He asked them to explain it in the simplest way. How did they plan to communicate their battle to the public? He said that he made some rules, and that some participants complied, and some didn't.

Aravena said that Biennale was only one step. It synthesizes all the information. But complaining is not enough; raising awareness is not enough; we must actually do something. We will be required to change business as usual. We must start with the problems of society, not just architecture.

The exhibition is aimed at three different groups of people:

1.  The practitioners -- the architects, etc.

2.  The decision makers -- the politicians, etc.

3.  The users -- the citizens.

Aravena hopes that after visiting the exhibition, the architects will go back to work with less excuses. He hopes that the decision makers will understand that we need to improve the quality of life, not just make a profit. And he hopes that the users will learn how to demand quality.

This is how the Architecture Biennale 2016 begins:


Here is Alejandro Aravena in his own words:

There were more than 500 people crammed into first Meeting on Architecture yesterday; the topic was INFRASTRUCTURE. It was fascinating to hear from the practitioners themselves about the challenges the world faces when it comes to building the environment, and some creative solutions they have found. Aravena asked, "Why should we care about your project?"

Very, very briefly, to sum up: Norman Foster spoke about building a drone port in Africa out of compressed earth, or sort of like a brick made out of mud. The drones could bring medical supplies and other necessities to people where no infrastructure exists at all, and the mud bricks were easy to make out of the existing environment.

Andrew Makin spoke about completing a freeway built by the apartheid government, also in Africa, that had been left dangling in the air due to a design error. By building a bridge linking a major city market to the community, it was like opening an artery, and allowed the native people go back to their normal lives, doing things like dispensing traditional medicine, cooking bovine heads (a delicacy), boiling and selling maize (corn), or sewing and selling religious garments.

Grupo EPM, from Columbia, spoke about how they used to be the murder capital of the world -- there were 50 thousand murders in 10 years -- but now have a 95% lower murder rate. They work for the mayor, and this was achieved by expanding, connecting and improving public space.

Rem Koolhaas said he had been to Nevada, and companies like Telsa and Amazon were building enormous structures out in the countryside where few human beings worked, and everything was automated. Should we continue to ignore this? We will need to establish a relationship with robots. Do robots need to play?

Joan Clos, Executive Director of the United Nations Settlements Program, said that we are growing our footprint with less planning than 20 years ago, and all sorts of spontaneous urbanization is springing up because NO ONE is in charge of public space, and private companies are doing whatever they want. Quality urbanization is a gated community these days; we are building interior walls, which is very sad.

Meetings on Architecture - Photo courtesy La Biennale
My biggest quibble, as illustrated by the photo above, is that there was not one woman up on the stage; there seems to be a dearth of female energy in the world of architecture in general. In fact, when the discussion was opened up to the audience, a female architect from Egypt commented that she disagreed with some of the points made, but that her voice was not being heard. Personally, I think adding more female energy to the world of architecture would be a positive step towards solving many of the problems that had been brought up, simply because women tend to look at the world from a Mother Nature point of view.

Paolo Baratta & Alejandro Aravena - Photo courtesy La Biennale
Aravena said that this was only the start of the conversation. After living in Venice for 18 years, and being isolated from what has been going on out there in the world, I came away thinking it is a conversation that is long overdue.

REPORTING FROM THE FRONT opened to the public on May 28 and runs through November 27. Go to Biennale for more information.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Reporting from the Front
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Architecture is the art by which we build our world. It is a tool like a Constitution is the tool to build our society, to organize our will and our destiny. Architecture is a tool to organize our common space.